AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   June/July 2007

Hometown Horror   

Immediately after the mass murder at Virginia Tech, local journalists led the coverage of an unfathomable tragedy.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

When a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech on April 16, journalists at the Roanoke Times and the student-run Collegiate Times were at the epicenter of the horror. The deadliest shooting in U.S. history had occurred on their home turf. For a brief time that terrible day, reporters from a medium-size daily and a group of neophytes led the coverage as an anguished campus, nation and world frantically searched for answers.

While outsiders were scrambling to reach Blacksburg, a town of 40,000 in Southwest Virginia, local journalists were already on the scene. The impending media frenzy was slowed by gusting winds that prevented planes from flying into the area. But the New River Valley bureau of the Roanoke Times, the area's dominant daily, is in Christiansburg, a 10-minute drive to campus.

The bureau's assistant news editor, Shay Barnhart, and her staff gathered around a police scanner that morning after the first slayings in West Ambler Johnston Hall. Suddenly, a voice shouted, "Shots fired! We have an active shooter." Rescue squads were ordered to Norris Hall. As Barnhart listened with dread, the rescuers began calling out numbers of wounded using their color-coded triage system: yellow for those slightly injured, red for those seriously hurt who needed immediate care. Finally, a somber voice reported, "29 black" the color for the dead or dying.

"No!" Barnhart thought. "Please let [that] be wrong." Then instinct kicked in. She called the Roanoke newsroom, where editors still had only two deaths confirmed from the earlier shooting. "No," she told them, "it's much worse."

When the first 24-hour news cycle ended, reporters at the Collegiate Times had talked to eyewitnesses, survivors and sobbing students. They were first to interview those who knew the shooter and names of the dead. When bleary-eyed staffers posted some of the victims' names at 4:07 a.m. on Tuesday, April 17, television networks and newspapers, including the New York Times, linked to the paper's Web site (www.collegiatetimes.com) or used the information and credited the paper, which publishes 14,000 copies, Tuesday through Friday, and is free on campus.

The banner head in the paper: "Heartache."

The Roanoke Times, which has a weekday circulation of 93,803, captured the first searing images of the carnage. Alan Kim, a part-time staffer and 1980 Tech graduate, had just taken his three sons to school when Barnhart called, telling him to rush to campus. As wind whipped his tripod, Kim stood in a field about 200 yards from Norris Hall and photographed police carrying out the wounded. The images, transmitted from the Roanoke newsroom to the Associated Press, quickly spread across the Internet and to media organizations around the globe. They were aired repeatedly by television news outlets desperate for pictures of the tragedy and were stripped across front pages throughout the nation on Tuesday.

Coverage by both papers blended old with new. Each turned to traditional pound-the-pavement reporting and mixed bloglike updates with regular news stories.

Web sites at the newspapers repeatedly overloaded or crashed as thousands attempted to access them. The Collegiate Times' servers crashed for the first time around 10:30 a.m. Monday after two chilling postings drew a thunderous response. Its first report on the dorm shooting appeared at 9:47 a.m.: "Shots were fired on campus in West Ambler Johns[t]on Hall in the early morning hours." Then, at 10 a.m.: "A gunman is confirmed loose on campus."

The Roanoke Times' first post (www.roanoketimes.com) came at 10:17 a.m. By then, media around the country were tuning in. "We knew it was going to be a huge online story, but nobody's Web site is prepared for this. The number of hits was staggering," says Roanoke Editor Carole Tarrant. "That's the curse of the Internet. Too many people want information at the same time. It's not like firing up a printing press." On April 16, instead of the usual 2,500 page views for the most-read story of the day, there were 261,000.

Each day that week, the Roanoke Times produced a 12- to 20-page special section posted on the Web as a PDF file. Editors turned to their Landmark Communications sister paper, the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, to host Web videos, freeing desperately needed space.

There were other maddening obstacles. Barnhart, in the New River Valley bureau, lost contact with her news team when cell phone service went down due to the massive volume of calls. Four of her reporters were caught in a police sweep on campus Monday morning and ordered to hunker down in a building for their own safety. They spent several hours immobilized.

Collegiate Times Photo Editor Shaozhuo Cui was photographing police activity near Norris Hall that morning when officers held him at gunpoint and ordered him to hit the ground. He was handcuffed, his possessions confiscated. In a story the next day, Cui told of hearing a police officer radio a message: "We've got a suspect matching the profile." He was released two hours later when police realized he was not involved. The shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, 23, was South Korean. Cui came to the U.S. from China five years ago.

From the beginning, the Roanoke Times' Tarrant reminded her staff that being right was more important than being first. The national media would pack up and go home. "But the decisions we made we were going to have to live with for a long time," she says. "I was fine with being cautious. I didn't want to get anything wrong. We had a responsibility to the community."

While veteran journalists like Tarrant orchestrated coverage at the Roanoke paper, the Collegiate Times persevered with a novice staff, including the editor. April 16 marked the start of Editor-in-Chief Amie Steele's third week at the helm. Before that, the 21-year-old junior had worked on design and production at the newspaper. Even more remarkable, it was the first day on the job for the staff hired for the next school year. Before April 16, they'd had a mere two weeks of training.

Steele decided to cover the story from the students' perspective. "That was one of our great strengths," she says. "During this whole tragedy, we were all experiencing it. We knew the emotions that other students were feeling. We were the ones best able to talk to them and take the pulse of what was going on. We were living the story."

And, like their peers, they were scarred by it. One reporter had a good friend among the dead. "I actually had to be the one to tell her, which is probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Steele says. "I'm very proud of her for making it through the week--she never gave up and kept writing stories."

The Collegiate Times tapped into the vast social networking resources on the Internet to help track down names of the dead. At 10 p.m., Steele assigned two reporters to mine the wildly popular Facebook and MySpace, along with other sites, for posts that could provide clues. They also turned to contacts such as classmates and faculty for information. Many on the paper's staff had friends who knew students in classes at Norris Hall that day. Once they had names, they could check for profiles on any of these sites.

If they found a profile, they searched for messages such as "I miss you already" or "RIP." They then sought confirmation from friends or family members. The students pulled an all-nighter, posting the first names at 4:07 a.m. "To us, it was just crazy to have CNN quote our list of victims and for huge media outlets to be citing us as their source for information," says Steele.

Poised and articulate, Steele quickly became sought after by CNN, National Public Radio, MSNBC and other high-profile news organizations seeking a link to the grieving student population. Dozens of requests for information came to both local papers from media outlets in such far-flung places as New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Japan, France and Ireland. Even the Arab news network Al Jazeera came calling. Distracted by the flood of attention, Tarrant asked a food writer to handle inquiries and turned down a request by a Dutch TV crew to visit the newsroom.

Already, Joe Strupp, senior editor at Editor & Publisher, has suggested that the Pulitzer Prize Board create a special category for the Collegiate Times, but Steele remains low-key about her paper's newfound fame. "It's almost two weeks later, and I still can't find words for the things that happened here, let alone the accolades. It just came out of such awful, awful circumstances," she said in late April.

The consumer studies major says she might consider a journalism career, now that she has overseen coverage of a crisis. Competition is part of the lure. More than that, as only a journalist can, she has found some satisfaction despite her sorrow. "You are responsible for what people know. That is mind-blowing," says Steele. "I'll just have to see where this takes me."